Port Elizabeth: a meander through history, heritage and art

For the fourth consecutive year I’ve spent time in Port Elizabeth in order to cover an aviation event in Uitenhage. Each time I’ve travelled between PE and Uitenhage to work and on my last day ‘off’ I’ve enjoyed travelling further afield to the wonderful Addo Elephant Park and the Kragga Kamma Game Park, only to return exhausted to Cape Town to process my work. Each time I’ve been to Port Elizabeth without actually experiencing Port Elizabeth at all!

This time I spent all of Sunday working on the laptop and utilised Monday on a sight-seeing trundle through PE Central in order to actually see and get to know the city.

Port Elizabeth, like my home town Cape Town, is a port city and colloquially called either the “Friendly City” or the “Windy City” (although I still think Cape Town can hold its own on that score!)

With my local friend Erika acting as tour guide, we started the day at MASTERTONS COFFEE AND TEA SPECIALISTS who pride themselves in traditionally hand-roasted coffee and have been in business since 1924.  The inviting smell inside the little shop is wonderfully aromatic and the experience is like stepping back in time.

From there we drove on to our next stop, HAVELOCK SQUARE, where we walked through the little public park situated in the historic part of Central, with the oldest houses dating back to 1862. The Holy Trinity Church on the eastern side of the square was built in 1866 and re- built in 1897 after being destroyed by a fire, while the St John’s Methodist Church on the western side was opened in 1894.


ST. GEORGE’S PARK was our next destination; also known as ‘Central Park’. We enjoyed the shade in the park’s botanical gardens which are home to an impressive collection of plants and tree specimens.

Suddenly my eye caught a glimpse of a Victorian era structure which turned out to be the beautifully well maintained PEARSON CONSERVATORY. Built in 1882, the Pearson Conservatory was created for the cultivation of exotic plants, water lilies and beautiful orchids. Named after Mr Henry Pearson, Mayor of PE, member of the Legislative Assembly, Treasurer-General of the Cape 1880-81 and Colonial Secretary in 1889, since he had been the one to suggest the establishment of the conservatory for the cultivation of exotic plants. It was declared a national monument in 1983.

A reminder how far from home I am!

The gardens are surrounded by some stately old buildings

St George’s Park Cricket Ground is the home of the Port Elizabeth Cricket Club, one of the oldest cricket clubs in South Africa, and the Eastern Province Club.  There are also a bowling green, swimming pool and an open air amphitheatre in the grounds.

Walking a little further along in the park, we arrived at the impressive monument called PRINCE ALFRED’S GUARD MEMORIAL, which honours the men of the Prince Alfred Guard who died in the Transkei War (1877); Basutoland War (1880-1881); Bechuanaland War (1897) and the Anglo Boer War (1899–1902). It was opened in 1907 and was restored in 2005. The inscriptions are unusual in that they commemorate those who died of wounds, rather than those who were killed in action.

It encompasses a large area and painted ochre, beige and green it blends very well with the surrounding grounds.


Back in the car and a quick drive through THE HARBOUR  where I was surprised to see the original SA Aghulhas (from 1978) -seen lying at the back in the image below.  I found this news item on-line: South Africa’s first dedicated training vessel, the SA Agulhas I, docked in Port Elizabeth on 10 March 2017 after a three-month voyage which took 30 sea-farer cadets to Antarctica and back.  The Agulhas I was acquired by the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) for training in support of the National Cadet Programme, which is being managed by the Port Elizabeth-based South African International Maritime Institute (SAIMI).

There are also a fishing fleet as well as oil tankers with a railway network servicing the area.

Thereafter we visited the cluttered collector’s heaven known as the PHOENIX HOTEL.  It prides itself as being SA’s oldest operating hotel, having been established circa 1837.

The traditional dark wood pub is known as the STAGE DOOR

but the actual gem of this place is The CANTINA – wood chips on the floor and claustrophobic all-out Americana


There are many cabinets filled to the brim with various collections


In 2011 a new art project known as Route 67 was opened to the public and consists of 67 public art works by 67 different local Eastern Cape artists symbolising Nelson Mandela’s 67 years of political life and his work dedicated to the struggle for Freedom in South Africa.  The walk has been organised by the Mandela Bay Development Agency, in order to tell the story of Port Elizabeth’s rich heritage – both the colonial period and the history of Nelson Mandela. The impetus behind all of this is to demonstrate how public art can create an interactive urban space.

While we did not see everything, some stand-outs were the TAXIS IN WHITES ROAD: cut out taxis embedded in the wall opposite the opera house.  This trompe l’oeil display really is a head-turner with a real sense of humour!

Opposite the wall of taxis is the PE OPERA HOUSE, which we were invited to enter


Who was PORT ELIZABETH named after?

The seaport town was founded by Sir Rufane Donkin, the Acting Governor of the Cape Colony, who named it after his late wife, Elizabeth in 1820. She had followed him to India where she fell ill and died. Sir Rufane was devastated and decided to return to England, but on the way back he was recalled to the Cape Colony to act as governor in 1819. He was then given the task of organising the 1820’s Settlers in Algoa Bay in 1820, where he found a small town with no name.  He called it Port Elizabeth in honour of his wife and commissioned soldiers to build a stone pyramid on a hill overlooking the ocean. This is known as the Donkin Reserve and is also referred to as the Balcony to Mandela Bay. Inscribed on a plaque on the Donkin memorial pyramid is this text:

“Elizabeth Frances Lady Donkin
Eldest daughter of Dr George Markham
Dean of York
died at Mirat in Upper Hindoostan of a fever
after seven days illness on the 21st of August 1818,
aged not quite 28 years.
She left an infant in his seventh month
too young to know the irreparable loss he had sustained,
and a husband whose heart is still wrung
by undiminished grief.
He erected this Pyramid
August 1820”

Later a lighthouse was constructed along with a cottage near the pyramid; a colourful mosaic floor decorates the floor around the pyramid.

While Erika climbed all the stairs to the very top of Donkin Lighthouse, I remained on terra firma and admired the garden of remembrance and more mosaics



Leading up to the hill are the MOSAIC STAIRS : “the stairway is an experiential journey that starts in darkness and turbulence and progresses to a new dawn and explosion of colour, hope and new beginnings”.

Close by is the TOWER SCULPTURE which “acts as a beacon to announce the journey through the Donkin Reserve and responds to its surrounding elements to allow wind and light to bring it to life”.

Once on the plateau of the Donkin Reserve we were greeted by the FISH BIRD by Mxolisi Dolla Sapeta.  “The Fish-Bird is returning back to the Donkin (sic) to take ownership of this transforming site”.

One of the most engaging pieces is the ELECTION QUEUE : “[it] represents the voting line that was formed at the 1994 elections”.  These are life-size laser cut steel figures created from photos of actual people, that form a long line led by a joyous Madiba raising his arm in triumph.

On the grass surrounding the memorial are some painted cement benches on which one can recline and relax .  Titled WINDWARD by Anthony Cole “The shapes of these sculptural benches hint at Port Elizabeth’s nautical history while the title refers to the city’s popular name, the “Windy City”. GRAFFITI by Black Concepts


Turning around you’ll see THE GREAT FLAG – Donkin Reserve is home to the tallest flagpole in Africa, and the largest South African flag in the world!


A little bit further is the grand King Edward Hotel, which overlooks the Donkin Reserve. This old hotel was in the process of being revamped and still closed to the public, but it promises to be rather luxurious when it’s all done.

That is in stark contrast to the very run down and in many cases ruined houses that seems to be dotted around all over.  Harking back to better times is the tatty hulk of the Victoria Hotel which has trees growing out of some of the upstairs windows and cracks in the peeling walls.


Some more neglected properties:


It appears as though the facade of this building will be left standing while the interior is being gutted:

Of the older colourful architecture, some pretty examples remain:



then there’s the view over the working harbour with the CAMPANILE clock tower:

and everywhere you look there seem to be beautiful old churches as well as the CITY HALL and PUBLIC LIBRARY

and the historic home of the Eastern Province Herald (the orange corner block)

Driving through the heart of the city there is busy traffic with new alongside old buildings


At the harbour’s perimeter is a green mosque

It had been an educational and most enjoyable day as we headed back and I was left feeling that this time I had come to know Port Elizabeth and its vibrant diversity a little bit better.


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5 Responses to Port Elizabeth: a meander through history, heritage and art

  1. Cathy James says:

    Loved this tour, I left PE a long long time ago, so lovely to visit again through your eyes.

  2. Brian Spurr says:

    Fantastic Images Irene!

  3. Alistair Kerr says:

    Greetings from New Zealand. I lived in P.E. from 1950 to 1954 and have returned three times, 1975-76, 1980=81 and 2000. Your beautiful photographs aroused great feelings of nostalgia for my South African “Home Town”.

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